Working with a Dissertation Committee

The relationship between the doctoral candidate and the dissertation committee (in U.S.-style doctoral programs) can be a difficult one. Professors on the committee, especially the committee chair, have a great deal of power over their students, and this dynamic can play out in unpleasant ways. Ideally, your chair would be a mentor who would give you exactly the right help. Realistically, however, there is a lot that you can do to smooth the relationship and to get the best you can from your professors, even if they’re not the ideal mentor you always dreamed of.

  1. You need their signatures to complete your dissertation, and they need to think that you’re ready. That decision is not a purely logical one; emotional factors matter. One particular factor is that professors think that they’re smart, and therefore they think that you’re smart if they do what they ask. You need not be a slave to your professors, but the more often you give them what they want, the more likely they are to think you’re ready.
  2. Avoid conflict and choose your battles carefully. You absolutely want to be ready to stand your ground on issues that you think important, and to have good theoretical reasoning to support a firm stand. But don’t look for conflict. Avoid discussion of issues on which you and your committee and committee chair don’t see eye-to-eye, unless that issue is crucial to your work.
  3. Stay on schedule. Tell your committee you’re going to submit a complete work on a certain date, and submit the work on that date. Communicating with them ahead of time and making plans with them will make it easier to get good and timely feedback. It’s hard to get good feedback; if you make a plan with your professors (who are surely very busy!), and you keep your side of it, you increase the likelihood that they don’t lose your work in the shuffle. (This also gives you an informal deadline, which can be useful for many writers–but that’s not a factor in managing your committee).
  4. Try to submit complete pieces of work. Write an introduction, overview, and conclusion. Whether you’re submitting a whole dissertation, a chapter, or just a section of a chapter, that piece of writing has its own coherence, scope, and limits. Address the overall scope and limits of the work, and the committee can give better feedback.
  5. Remember that the members of your committee almost certainly want you to graduate, and as quickly as possible. Maybe some professors want to keep their students under their power, but most want their favored students to succeed and their disliked students to get the heck out of their lives. They may not give you much help, but don’t assume they’re trying to impede you unless you have very clear evidence. Don’t create an adversarial atmosphere in the relationship unless it can be avoided.
  6. Focus on your professors’ role as a resource, not on their role as judges. Yes, it’s true that in the end, they are the judges, but if you think of them that way, it can lead to a sort of defensiveness as you speculate on what concerns they might have about any weaknesses in your work. If, instead, you view them as resources, then you communicate about the weaknesses of your work differently: you ask for help in resolving those weaknesses rather than trying to cover up or defend those weaknesses.
  7. Try not to be intimidated, and remember that they are most definitely not your parents. It is to be hoped that you get to study with professors that you respect, and who may have done work that you view as important. But the emotional dynamic of working with someone you respect and who also has power over you can be emotionally triggering because of its resemblance to parental relationships. It’s great to have a professor whose work inspires you, but don’t let that inspiration become intimidation. Your dissertation probably won’t be of the quality of your professors’ best work, but then their dissertation probably wasn’t of the quality of their best work either. Do your best work and remember that your professor agreed to work with you, so you need not be intimidated.